The Supreme Court on Monday made it easier for parents of special education students to get reimbursement for private school tuition. School administrators fear that the 6-3 ruling will lead to a jump in private school placements.
The student in the case is known simply as "T.A." The Forest Grove School District, outside of Portland, Ore., noticed that he was having problems in high school but suspected marijuana use was the cause and refused to give him special education services. Toward the end of his junior year, T.A.'s parents pulled him out of public school and sent him to a private residential academy.
The parents then sued the school district to recover the $65,000 they spent on private tuition. The school district argued that the parents stepped over the line and lost the ability to seek reimbursement when they transferred him without first giving public special education a try.
Attorney David Salmons, who represented T.A.'s family, says the history of the litigation shows that the district had not done its job. T.A.'s parents had raised concerns about their son before they pulled him out of school, and a school psychologist questioned whether he might have attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.
"The hearing officer concluded that any further notice to the school district would have served no purpose," Salmons says, "because the school district was applying the wrong legal standard and would have denied the child services in all circumstances."
Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that schools have an affirmative obligation to "identify, locate and evaluate all children with disabilities." He said it would be wrong to reward the school district for refusing to find a child eligible for special services.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined the dissent, written by Justice David Souter, which said Congress envisioned private tuition payments only for students who already had been receiving special education services in public schools.
Lindsay Jones of the Council for Exceptional Children says the majority decision will hurt school systems because it removes the incentive for parents to collaborate with educators.
"Under that situation," she says, "parents don't have to even seek special education services or work with the district before they ask that the district pay for their private placement."
Jones' group, which represents special educators, wants Congress to rewrite the special education law and clarify the limits on when parents can ask for private school tuition.
But attorneys for families say the decision will not lead to a spike in private placements.
Salmons notes that the family has won only the right to argue for reimbursement.
"Keep in mind," he says," that the decision today does not guarantee the parents reimbursement for private school tuition. The parents have the burden of showing that there was a failure to provide a free appropriate public education, and they have the burden to show that their private placement was appropriate."
Private placements get a lot of publicity and are blamed for soaking up education dollars. But they make up only a small percentage of special education cases, and many are resolved with a school district's consent. Lawyers for special education students say they hope this decision will stop cases from going to court by encouraging districts to act quickly to identify students with learning problems.